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Interview with Ram Dass


From levity.com

David: I see that you have Bob Dole on your altar. That's a nice touch.(laughter)

Ram Dass: I take the person who most closes my heart and I watch my heart close as I look at their picture.

David: What was it that originally inspired your interest in the evolution of human consciousness?

Ram Dass: I'm inclined to immediately respond - mushrooms, which I took in March 1961, but that was just the beginning feed-in to a series of nets. Once my consciousness started to go all over the place, I had to start thinking it through in order to understand what was happening to me. It wasn't until after I'd been around Tim Leary, Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts, that I started to reflect about issues like the evolution of consciousness.

David: Was there a common denominator between what drew you to study psychology and what drew you to spiritual transformation?

Ram Dass: I am embarrassed to admit what drew me to psychology. I didn't want to go to medical school. I was getting good grades in psychology and I was charismatic and people in the psychology department liked me. It was as low a level as that. My whole academic career was totally out of Jewish anxiety, and issues surrounding achievement and adequacy. It was totally socio-political. It had nothing to do with intellectual content at all.

David: You talk about that time in your life as if it was a period of simple bad judgment, but wasn't it also a necessary part of your evolution?

Ram Dass: Well, that's different. I was, after all, teaching Freudian theory. Human motivation was my specialty, so I thought a lot about all that stuff. That served me in very good stead because it's an exquisitely articulated sub-system. If you stay in that sub-system, it's very finite and not very nourishing. But when you have a meta-system, and then there's the sub-system within it, then it's beautiful, it's like a jewel - just like with chemistry or physics.

But when I was in it, it was real. When I was a Freudian, all I saw were psycho-sexual stages of development, and as a behaviorist all I saw were people as empty boxes.

Rebecca: You seem to be able to incorporate and apply some of the things you learned as a psychologist to this larger understanding of the human condition.

Ram Dass: Everything I learned has, within that relative system, validity. So, if somebody comes to me with a problem, they come to me living within that psychological context. I have incredible empathy for their perception of reality, partly because of what I've been through in it. You've got to go into the sub-system to be with the person within it, and then create an environment for them to come out of it if they want to. That seems to me to be a model role for a therapist.

It's also showed me a certain kind of arrogance in Western science. Here was Western science really ignoring the essence of what human existence was about and presenting it as if concerns about that were some kind of bad technique.

When I was in psychology we were getting correlations of 50 on personality variables which was very good - you are accounting for 25% of the variance. But that means that at least 75% was error. It could have been anything! So, it left plenty of space. At the time we really thought we had the theory down cold, but I realize now how hungry I was in that situation.

Rebecca: To fill in that space.

Ram Dass: Yes. I think that everything I went into or was, gives me a legitimacy with people in that field. The whole game of communicating dharma is metaphor - and, in a way, I can talk the metaphor of this culture.

David: Would you say then, that someone who has demonstrated a high degree of success at playing society's games, becomes a more credible spiritual voice and gains more respect?

Ram Dass: Well, it depends on who the respect is from. There are people who respect me because I was at Harvard and Stanford, and then there are people who respect me because I left Harvard and Stanford, or I was thrown out of Harvard - even better.(laughter)

What's fun is that I went from being a really good guy in the society to becoming a bad guy, to then becoming a good guy again. It's fascinating to play with these kinds of energies. When you're playing on the leading edge, it's like surfing. There's a big wave which pushes a little wave in front of it. The little wave is the exciting one because hardly anyone is on it, and everyone thinks you're nuts. The meeting at Harvard where I got found out was extraordinary. It was a moment where I knew I had left my supply wagon far behind. I was called into the office beforehand by the heads of the department and they said, "we can't protect Tim, but we can protect you - if you shut up."

Then, in the meeting, all our colleagues got up and attacked us: our research, our design, our data - everything. They saw it as defending the department against a cult that was in danger of taking it over, because out of fifteen graduate students, twelve wanted to do only psychedelic research.(laughter)

So, when they had all finished attacking us Tim was stunned, because he had had the feeling of everything being wonderful, of loving everybody and everybody loving him. So, I got up and I said, "I would like to answer on our behalf."

I looked at the chairman of the department and he gave me a look like, well, you've made the choice. And I had, because I realized that I could not have lived with the hypocrisy that would have been demanded of me otherwise. The feeling I had was that I was home. It was so familiar and so right that I couldn't leave it.

But then when I became the good guy again, I find myself riding the bigger wave. I can make a lot of money now, people love me. It's playing with a different power but it's not as much fun as being on the little wave. (laughter)

David: How has your experience with psychedelics shaped your quest for higher awareness?

Ram Dass: It had no effect on me whatsoever and nobody should use it! (laughter) The predicament about history is that you keep rewriting the history. I'm not sure, as I look back, whether what appeared to be critical events are really as critical as I thought they were, because a lot of people took psychedelics and didn't have the reaction I had. That had something to do with everything that went before that moment. In a way I just see it as another event, but I can say that taking psychedelics and meeting my guru were the two most profound experiences in my life.

Psychedelics helped me to escape - albeit momentarily - from the prison of my mind. It over-rode the habit patterns of thought and I was able to taste innocence again. Looking at sensations freshly without the conceptual overly was very profound.

Rebecca: Do you think you would have gotten to that point anyway, because of the path you were following?

Ram Dass: I don't know, but the probabilities are against it because I was being rewarded so much by the society to stay in the game I was in. I had all the keys to the kingdom; a tenured professorship at Harvard, a pension plan, etc. When I look at my colleagues as a control group, the ones who took acid aren't in the game, the ones who took acid are. It's as simple as that.

(Insert) Rebecca: You could look at that and say that it wasn't necessarily psychedelics that was the deciding factor, but that the prescence of certain qualities already existent in those people determined whether they took acid or not - qualities such as courage, imagination, ability to question the status quo etc.

.David: How did you then make the transition from Dr Richard Alpert to Ram Dass?

Ram Dass: Well, initially it was all very confusing. I was teaching a course in human motivation. I took my first psilocybin on Friday night, and by Monday morning I was lecturing on stuff which was basically lies as far as I was concerned.(laughter) So, that was wierd because my whole game started to disintegrate at that point.

I still stayed as Mr Psychedelic Junior in relation to Tim, and publicly my gig was turning on rich people and dealing and giving lectures on the psychedelic experience. By 1966, I looked around and saw that everybody who was using psychedelics really wasn't going anywhere. I was around the best of them, but even if they had the Eastern models, they couldn't wear them - the suit didn't fit. I realized that we just didn't know enough. We had the maps but we couldn't read them.

Then I went to India in the hope that I could meet somebody there who could read the maps. I met Neem Karoli Baba and he gave me the name Ram Dass, and that put it in a bigger context than the drugs. The experience wasn't any greater than the drug experience, but the social context of it was entirely changed. Neem Karoli took acid and said that it was known about for thousands of years in the Kulu Valley but that nobody knew how to use them any more. I said, "should I take it again?" He said, "it will allow you to come in and have the Darshan of Christ. You can only stay two hours. It would be better to become Christ than visit it, but your medicine won't do that."

I thought that was pretty insightful. LSD showed you an analog of the thing itself but something in the way we were using it couldn't bring us to the thing itself.

Rebecca: Acid seems to temporarily push the neurosis out of the way away, like moving through a crowd into the space of the innocence you mentioned earlier. When the drug wears off and the crowds of neurosis swarm around us again, have you really dealt with anything?

Ram Dass: But the way the neuroses comes back is different. The way I talk about it in my lectures is that they go from being these huge monsters that possess you, to these little schmoos that come by for tea.(laughter) I have every neurosis that I ever had. I haven't gotten rid of a single one!

Rebecca: Many people experience a kind of existential guilt because they find that they can't live up to the inner potential they've seen during the psychedelic experience.

Ram Dass: I've had all of that! I've had all the bad trips, all the guilt and anxiety and psychosis. In my lectures I sometimes say, "I've had hundreds of drug sessions, and a lot of people say that someone who has done that is basically psychotic. I have no idea whether I am a psychotic or not, because a psychotic would be the last to know, right? All I can say is that you paid to hear me." (laughter)

Rebecca: Do you see Richard Alpert and Ram Dass as two separate entities or more like siamese twins?

Ram Dass: I've been through different stages. There was a stage where I had to push away Richard Alpert to become Ram Dass. I saw Richard Alpert as a real drag and then I saw him as poignant. If Ram Dass came into Richard Alpert's office, Richard Alpert would have hospitalized him. I would have seen myself as very pathological and very disturbed.

Rebecca: What would the diagnosis have been?

Ram Dass: Oh, Schizophrenia. Psychologists don't have the distinction between vertical schizophrenia and horizontal schizophrenia, and they would see a number of different identities in me. Once, Tim and I went to New York to do an all night radio show. We split a sugar cube of acid, but it turned out that most of the acid was on my half.(laughter)

We got to a party at Van Wolf's house and there was a woman sketching people on the wall. She had already done Allen Ginsberg and Tim, and she asked if she could do me, and I agreed. I stood there and I thought, `I'm a young man looking into the future.' I had to be somebody. She sketched me. Then I got bored with that and I thought, `I'm really her lover.'

I didn't change any facial expressions, I just thought the thought. And she erased what she had done. Then I thought, `I'm actually just an old wise being.' She erased it again and finally she said, "I can't do your face, it's just so liquid."

I'm not yet evolved enough so that Richard Alpert and Ram Dass are one. When somebody calls me Richard, I wince a little bit because I'm still holding on to wanting to be Ram Dass. Ram Dass represents that deep place in my being. Richard Alpert never represented that to me.

Rebecca: You're ready to put Bob Dole on your altar but not Richard Alpert?

Ram Dass: (laughter) No. I'm not ready for that yet.

David: What is your concept of God?

Ram Dass: (long pause) I think it's a word like a finger pointing to the moon. I don't think that what it points to is describable. It is pointing to that which is beyond form that manifests through form. `A God defined is a God confined.' I can give you thousands of poetic little descriptions. It's all, everything and nothing - it's all the things that the Heart Sutra talks about. It's God at play with itself. God is the One, but the fact is that the concept of the One comes from two, and when you're in the One, there's no One - it's zero, which equals one at that point.

Rebecca: What is your experience of God?

Ram Dass: Presence - but not a dualistic presence. The dance goes from realizing that you're separate (which is the awakening) to then trying to find your way back into the totality of which you are not only a part, but which you are. It's like holography. You are the whole thing and you go through stages of approaching that understanding.

Like my relationship with my guru. First I had the person and then he died. Then I had the pictures and the stories, and I got bored with that. Then there was the feelings of the qualities of his being: humor, rascality, sternness. And then there was just presence. And then, there was just this feeling of being. Not even the experience of a presence.

That's the quality of emptiness, even emptiness of the concept of something. The Chinese patriarch says, even to be attached to the idea of enlightenment is to go astray. It's that moment when all of the dualism just keeps falling away and falling away.

Rebecca: When you talk about God it's seen as your job so it's okay, but when others mention the G word, the response is usually either pity or embarrassment.

Ram Dass: Because it's been pre-empted by third chakra power trippers. They're using God in contexts like `my God' or `the God' or `unless you believe in God...' or `do you believe in God?' It's power in both directions and it's the reductionistic nature of the way the mind works. What the word God means is the mystery really. It's the mystery that we face as humans. The mystery of existence, of suffering and of death.

The question is: What is your relationship to the mystery? Are you defending yourself from it? Are you making love to it? Are you living in it? These are all different stages of the process.

Rebecca: How can people speak about God without getting into these sticky areas?

Ram Dass: I think the word God is going to have to be put to rest for a while. I'm using it less and less. I've been trying a different thing now and I've been saying to people in my workshops, "I challenge you all within a year to be living on two planes of consciousness simultaneously." They said, "which two?" I say, "any two." (laughter) That's not talking about spirit, it's not talking about God, but it's doing exactly the same thing - it's shifting paradigm and context.

David: Your guru was an extremely significant figure in your life. Could you describe what you have carried with you as a result of your relationship with him?

Ram Dass: He is the most important separate consciousness in my life, even though he died in 1973. He's more real than anybody else I deal with. It's like having an imaginary playmate that is so hip and so wise and so cool and so empty and so doesn't give a fuck and so loving and so compassionate - so any way you can go. It's such fun.

He is the closest I've ever come to finding unconditional love. He didn't even want to stay alive. Most people you meet might say, "I'm an unconditional lover," but you go to kill them and they go, "nooo!" (laughter)

But it's not him, he's just the form of it. Once, Maharaji was warning this girl off this dubious guy she had met. She said, "he's only my friend" and Maharaji said, "your only friend is God." I really heard that. Your only friend is the reflection of the mystery in each form. And that's what you want to be friends with - not with the story-line.

Rebecca: Do you feel that you're coming even closer to him as time goes on?

Ram Dass: Yeah. When I think of who he was - this giant of a being - the idea that I could be him is such chutzpah that I can't even entertain it in my mind. But I can see that as fast as I can, I'm dying into him. The heat is being turned up so fast and I'm aware of it. If you put a frog in boiling water it will jump out, but if you put it in cold water you can boil it and it won't move. I'm aware of the heat being turned up, but I don't want to jump out.(laughter)

Rebecca: A lot of Westerners have a hard time understanding the guru/devotee relationship. Could you describe this relationship as you understand it?

Ram Dass: Ramana Mahashi said, "God, guru and Self are one and the same thing." The real guru is not anybody busy being somebody. If you asked Maharaji if he was a guru he would say, "I don't know anything, god knows everything." The guru is a door-frame. You don't worship the door-frame, you're trying to go through the door. It's like that saying about, if you meet the Buddha on the road, slay him.

You don't owe the guru anything but your own liberation because that's the only way you come into the guru. What the guru does, as far as I can see, is mirror for you where you aren't. The guru shows you all your neuroses writ large, because there's nothing you can project into the guru. You keep trying to make him into somebody like you, but he isn't because he doesn't want anything - and you still want something.

That understanding can come through books or on the astral plane - it doesn't have to come through a physical guru. But once you've tasted this stuff you can get very attached to your method of getting there. Many people who get closest to God through sex, get very addicted to sex. They get attached to the method rather than to what the method is for.

The guru is just another method, and it's a trap. But you have to get trapped for it to work and then you just hope it ejects. If the guru isn't pure they won't let you eject, they won't let you go. You'll know in your intuitive heart that you're being had, but you might not want to admit it.

Rebecca: Again there's that Western suspicion because of the history of power-tripping gurus.

Ram Dass: Right. The true guru doesn't want any worldly power - it's a joke to them.

Rebecca: Did you find yourself testing your guru a lot in the beginning?

Ram Dass: He so overwhelmed me with his first gambit that there wasn't any way that I could test him any more. He just did it to me so thoroughly that there couldn't be a question. He could have gone in there with a shovel but he went in with a bulldozer! (laughter)

I was coming up a hillside and I saw him sitting under a tree with eight or ten devotees around him. I'm standing at a distance and the guy who is with me is on his face touching this his feet, and I'm thinking, "I'm not going to do that."

Neem Karoli Baba looked up at me and said, "you came in a big car?" We had come in a friend's Land Rover that we had borrowed so this guy could come and see his guru to get his visa. So I said, "yes." And then he said, "you will give it to me?" Now, coming from Jewish charities as I do, I had been hustled, but never like this! I was speechless. The guy I was with leans up and says, "if you want it Maharaji, it's yours." I protested and said, "you can't give David's car away!" I was aware of everybody laughing at me, but I was very serious. (laughter)

Then Neem Karoli said, "take them and feed them." So we were taken down to the temple and fed lunch. Then he called me back up and he told me to sit down. He looked at me and said, "you were out under the stars last night," Then he said, "you were thinking about your mother." My mind started to get agitated and I started to entertain hypotheses as to how he could have known that. Then he said, "she died last year," and the dis-ease kept growing. Then he said, "she got very big in the belly before she died." My mother had died of an enlarged spleen. And then he closed his eyes and he rocked back and forth and he opened his eyes and looked at me, and in English he said, "spleen."

When he said that, my mind just couldn't handle it. I just gave up. Something shifted and I started to feel a wrenching pain in my chest. There was a radio show on many years ago called Inner Sanctum and they opened this screeching door at the beginning of every show. I felt like this door that had been long closed was being violently forced open. I started to cry and I cried for two days. And after that, all I wanted to do was touch his feet.

I had recognized that not only was he inside my head, but that everything I was, he loved. There was not a part of me that he didn't know, and he still loved me. So, all the models of `if they only knew that little thought that I don't even admit to myself, they wouldn't love me,' didn't apply.

This wasn't an intellectual process. It was a direct experience of that quality of unconditional love. It took that long (snaps his fingers) and all the rest of it has been basically irrelevant. I cherish everything that came after and I got all kinds of teachings, but the thing happened at that moment. He didn't do anything, he just was it. He was an environment where my ripeness to open had a chance to express itself.

Rebecca: Did you get a lot of flack from your peers and friends when you came back to the United States from India?

Ram Dass: Well, I came back wearing a dress, I was barefoot, I had long hair, a long beard and beads. I wouldn't have noticed flack if it had hit me in the face!(laughter)

David: What was Timothy Leary's reaction?

Ram Dass: I don't remember precisely. Tim and I weren't very close during that period of time. He had been to India just a few years before I had, so he understood the context from which I was speaking. When we started to come back together again, we had by then gone in such different directions that there were certain topics that we kind of agreed not to deal with.

Tim is a little bit of a mystery to me. He seemed fascinated by the conceptual play around the psychedelic experience, while I was much more about dying into emptiness. But I didn't have a vested interest in being an intellectual or a scholar. Tim goes out of conceptual space obviously, you only have to read Psychedelic Prayers, but the venue that he wants to hang out in, is the conceptual mind. That isn't my domain.

Kalu Rinpoche, who is an incredible Tibetan lama, said, "Ram Dass, you have three things to do in this life: honor your guru, deepen your emptiness and deepen you compasssion." And that's just what it feels like to me. I live a lot with mystery. Tim sees mystery as a challenge. I see it as a delightful place to play, so, when somebody tells me they have just solved a mystery, I am only passingly interested.

Rebecca: That's a classic East-West dynamic.

Ram Dass: Very much so. I spent many years being very defensive about the fact that I was not schooled in Western metaphysics and philosophy, but it left a blank slate on which I could write when I went to the East. Then I came back and I could view Western philosophy from that perspective.

I see this role of mediating between the East and West as a delicious dance. I went Western and then I pushed West away to embrace East. Then I came back like a virgin afraid of the West, and then slowly over the years stuck my toe in again. I shaved the beard, put on the pants, got the credit card and the MG and a house in Marin, and oh my God what happened! (laughter) It's like being in the world and not of it. It has to come at a point where it's not scaring you or trapping you. It's empty form.

Rebecca: You've compared the process of persistent self-analysis to playing with one's feces. Where do you think self-analysis can take us, and what are its limitations?

Ram Dass: It depends on your intention in having fecal play. It can be as a practice of mindfulness - in order to find a place of witnessing and seeing it for what it is. Then there is being in the drama and self-analysis can be just a way of exacerbating the drama and making your identity in the storyline more real.

Unfortunately this characterizes most of the dialogues between therapists and patients. Everybody is so caught in the stuff that they are just reinforcing caughtness even as they are trying to get you out of it. It's like rearranging furniture in the prison cell rather than trying to get out of prison.

But as an exercise in mindfulness, self-analysis can be very useful. It can help you to deal with the phenomena of your life as they rise. You notice them and the noticing gets stronger and stronger until you're not going into them so much. That's a stage, because you're still distant from them and then you have to come back in until you're in them and not in them at the same moment.

I think the fallacy is that if you're standing in one place, you can't be standing somewhere else. I think that freedom is being conscious on all levels simultaneously. Freedom is not standing anywhere. You have no perspective, and then you just adopt a perspective for a functional situation. The situation brings you into perspective at that moment, but you're not resting in perspective. Is that clear?

David: Yes..... it's just difficult to do.

Ram Dass: Well, as long as you think you're doing it - that's a place. (laughter) That was the beauty of Trungpa Rinpoche, a wonderful Tibetan lama, he sat down and said, "I want to show you a new form of meditation, let's do it together." We sat down looking at one another and after a while he said, "Ram Dass, are you trying?" and I said, "yes, I'm trying," and he said, "don't try - just do it."

Rebecca: You speak about operating from the point of view of God's instrument, but isn't there a risk of becoming self-righteous with that perspective and thinking, "well, I'm an instrument of God and God is never wrong, therefore I am never wrong," and losing the self-consciousness required to keep one's ego in check?

Ram Dass: I think that if your intention is freedom, then you will get caught in that, but you won't stay in it. You'll get caught in `I represent the Godfather so don't screw around with me,' and then you'll see that that's a horrible place to be standing in. That's ego.

The mechanism that corrects you is not even the grossness of that conceptual understanding. It's almost a vibratory thing. You feel a thickness or a heaviness and you just know that you're caught. You don't even know how you're caught - you don't know whether it's lust or anger or fear, and you don't even give a damn which one it is, you just start your mechanisms to remember, to bring your consciousness out of sticking in a place. You can be stuck anywhere, in `I am God' or `I am empty'.

I've lost it thousands of times, and what I've done is surround myself as best I can with people who bust me. When I get caught I can get very resistant to admitting that I'm caught. It's the use of one thing in the service of something else. I kid about it and say, "wouldn't you like to come up and see my holy pictures?" My guru put it very succinctly, he said "siddhis (spiritual powers) are pigshit." (laughter)

Rebecca: Do you still find yourself getting caught on occasion?

Ram Dass: You have to want something a little bit, but the wanting is really going down a lot.

Rebecca: What is karma?

Ram Dass: Karma is another way of saying that everything is related to everything else in the universe in a lawful way - future, past and present. A limited interpretation of karma has to do with looking from the past to the future, but actually it's all inter-related. You just feel the unfolding of the process of interaction leading to a certain moment.

If you chart it you can plot it somewhat and see that this came from there in a series of cause and effect, but actually it's not linear at all. You are already enlightened, so you are actually going from where you started back to where you started. You're nowhere because nothing happened and in that moment you realize it - aaaargh! (laughter)

They say that when a being becomes free, all that is left in form is old karma running off. When you do an act with intention, it's like a pebble dropping in a pond. It creates waves - it's an action. When you become no longer identified with that which has motives, (they are there but you're not identified with them, you're just awareness) then you're not creating new karma. When the old karma runs off - you aren't. That's what a being that finishes is. You run out of karma.

In other words, in the course of things with everything interacting with everything else, you just cease to exist as a separate thing. It's still everything, because you were everything already. Nothing happened to you, if there is a you.(laughter)

Rebecca: The concept of personal karma is becoming more and more popular, but it's often seen as a justification for

non-intervention in the sense of; I have my karma and that homeless person asking me for a quarter has his karma, and who am I to intervene with anybody else's karma?

Ram Dass: His karma is that you have that karma - your karma is not intervening. He stays hungry, so that's his karma. Everybody is everybody else's karma. The fact that you saw the homeless person is part of your karma and it's having an effect on you all the time. You are my karma and I am yours at this moment.

It's so profoundly subtle because who I see you to be is a projection of my karma. The way karma manifests is in desire systems. If I don't have any attachments at all, what I see is something entirely different. To see symmetry, to see familiarity, to see warmth when I look at you, I'm having to do all this stuff with my mind. Who you really are, I have no idea - until I have no karma.

David: It sounds as if it's all so organized that there is little room for free will.

Ram Dass: I've been grappling with the concept of free will for a long time, and this is what I've come up with. To the extent that we are in form (and that includes thought) we have no freedom, because of the nature of karma, of everything being lawfully related to everything else. So then when somebody says free choice, does that mean anything? Who has choice?

I can think I have choice. I can say, "I'm going to go to the movies tonight," but if you knew enough about me and if you could handle a multi-variable approach, you could predict that I would say that. If you knew enough about my gene structure and the shape of my hands and my father's behavior, you could predict my position in the chair at this moment. So where is the free will? The fact is, that only when you aren't anybody do you have free will.

Rebecca: So you're saying that you only really have free-will at the point where the concept of free-will is meaningless - when you no longer even have the desire to have free will.

Ram Dass: Right. When you want something, you see only the manifestation of the outward container. God is free, or the formless is free, or non-dualism is free. Awareness has no form and so you as awareness are free basically, but every way it manifests through form is itself within law. One of the things I got from Maharaji was a sense of his seeing the universe as just law unfolding. There is nothing personal about it, it's just stuff happening.

And he was offering to meet me behind it, where we are free. I couldn't handle the fact that he understood the nature of suffering and I learned that the line that goes, `out of emptiness arises compassion' has that mystery right in it. You'd better be empty of intention and desire. The Tao says `the truth waits for eyes unclouded by longing.'

David: So are you saying then that being embodied in form means that everything is predetermined?

Ram Dass: No, it's not predetermination. Everything is related to the future and past - what's pre?

Rebecca: Be here now.(laughter)

Ram Dass: (laughter) When somebody says to me, "don't I have free will?" I say, "it depends on who the `I' is. Most likely if you think you are somebody who could have free will, then you don't." You are free will, but you don't have free will. So, if I'm facing a choice, I always know I'm standing in the wrong place. Mostly nowadays I'm watching my life to see how it came out, rather than what to do about it.

Rebecca: Isn't there some creative quality? Aren't you given a riff on which you can them improvise?

Ram Dass: Yeah, but the improvisation isn't really creative. It's creativity the way we think about it, because it surprises us, but it's still lawful.

(Insert) Rebecca: How do you explain in karmic terms why, once you have set yourself upon a path to the absolute, signposts and guides seem to appear out of nowhere?

Ram Dass:

David: Could you share with us the experience you had swimming with John Lilly's dolphins?

Ram Dass: (long pause) I went with my friend to Redwood City, Marineworld because I had been invited by John and Toni Lilly to swim with Joe and Rosie. It was a cold, grey day. I stood on the edge of the tank and I thought, "I'm too old for this. I don't want to swim with the dolphins anyway!" (laughter) The problem was that everyone was standing around watching to see what Ram Dass would do with the dolphins. It was a real drag.

So I get into the water, and as the dolphins go by me I realize that they're much bigger than I thought they would be - and I could feel their power. Then one of them, Rosie, began just hovering right next to me, so I reached out to touch her. Now in my model, if it's got a tail it's a fish, and when you touch fish they go away - but she didn't go away. Then I ran my hand down her back. It was the silkiest thing I had ever touched. It was like water with form. A thrill went through me. Still she didn't move.

Suddenly I realized that she had opened to the contact. The recognition that her consciousness was right there, allowing me to do that, did the same thing to me as Maharaji's "spleen" (of course, my mind is much more blowable by this time - I'm ready to remember.) Up until then I'd been thinking, what am I supposed to do with the dolphin? But while I was touching her, I gave up and my heart just opened.

When that happened, she flipped until she was upright right in front of me. My heart was so open that I leaned forward and kissed her on the mouth. Unstead of pulling back, she started insinuating her body into mine. I was going into ecstasy, I was saying, "oh Rosie, oh Rosie," (laughter) and I started to get an erection. Then the thought occurred to me, "is this legal?" And all the time I'm smiling and everyone is watching to see what Ram Dass is doing with the dolphins.(laughter)

Then she swam around and came in under my arm, and I thought I'd really like to swim with her. I grabbed her dorsal fin and she went down and my hand slipped off the fin, so she came back and I grabbed it again. I didn't want to grab it too hard because I didn't want to hurt her. She went down and it slipped off again, and she kept coming back under my arm. So I thought, what I really want to do is to hold her underneath the stomach, so I grabbed a fin and I held her.

She went down and she was very active so I thought, I must be bugging her so I let go and I came to the surface and she came right in underneath my arm again. So I grabbed her and held on and we started to go wild through the tank. It was just incredible! I got to the point where my breath started to give out and I thought, Rosie, this is lovely, but I'm one of the those other creatures! And with that thought, she immediately came to the surface while I got a breath and we went back down. This went on several times.

Once we came up and people were taking photographs. I got to hamming for the camera and I forgot to take a breath and she went down. I thought, this is where we part company Rosie, and she came right up so I could get air. Then I started to get so cold that I was blue and shaking. She pulled away from me and went and got Joe and they both nosed me over to the platform and out of the tank.

David: How wonderful! Have you ever had an experience that you would label an extra-terrestial contact?

Ram Dass: No. I assume there are lots of beings on every plane all around the place, but I myself have not had experiences of that kind. By extra-terrestial do you mean beings on the physical plane like other beings in the solar system?

David: Not necessarily. A lot of people have used the term extra-terrestrial in the context of a psychedelic experience where they've encountered entities that they feel have evolved from somewhere else either from another planet or plane.

Ram Dass: I've met many beings on other planes but I don't call them extra-terrestrial. Maharaji is not on this plane any more - but he's there. He's present as a separate entity, and the form I see him in is the form my mind projects into him.

I've also written prefaces for three volumes of the books on Emmanual. Emmanual speaks through a woman called Pat Roderghast and he is an absolutely delightful spook. I know Pat very well and I know Emmanual quite well now. I asked him what to tell people about dying and he said, "tell them it's absolutely safe." What a superb one-liner. He also said, "death is like taking off a tight shoe." He's just like this friendly, wise uncle.

In the preface I say, I don't know whether this is vertical schizophrenia or whether it's a separate entity, and I don't really care. I'm experiencing it as a separate entity and my criteria is whether I can use the material, not whether it's real or not.

Rebecca: How do you act or feel differently when you are in the presence of a dying person?

Ram Dass: Well, theoretically I don't act any differently because we're all dying. Basically, the human relations boil down to creating an environment in which another person can manifest as they would manifest. That's what love is. You're in love with the universe and you want it to do what it needs to do. You're creating an environment that is the least limiting.

So, my job isn't to have somebody die my philosophical or metaphysical death, my job is to create a space of listening and quietness and presence with no boundaries. My job is not to use a denial of their experience out of my fear as a way of distancing myself through being kind and helpful or whatever, because that traps them in objectivity.

There is one awareness in which some of it is dying and some of it is visiting some of it that's dying. To me then, the one awareness frees both of us immensely, and it frees them of being busy dying. If they're ready to let go of dying then it's really great fun. It's woooooow! It's oooooooh!! (laughter) If they're busy dying, it's none of my business. I'm not going to say, "come on, you know you're not really dying," I have no moral right to do that.

Rebecca: The ability to create that space in yourself must take some practice though.

Ram Dass: What happens is, wherever there is desire, there is clinging in you. Situations that awaken that clinging are the ones that are really fruitful. Death is certainly the most clinging situation that humans have to deal with.

So, I'm attached to working with dying people because it's the closest I can get to one of my deepest clingings. I can slowly watch my heart open and close, and I can stay mindful in it. I see also how there is a certain cosmic giggle about the whole thing, but that's just so socially unacceptable - even to me.

David: Can you describe one of the most profound experiences you've had working with a dying person?

Ram Dass: The most profound awakening I've had recently, was two years ago, working with a woman who was dying of AIDS. I just fell into love with her like the way I've been talking about. That's what it is, it's being in love with somebody, in the sense of no boundary and no model of how they should be. I could open myself, and being that open, you experience what they experience.

I watched how I stayed open, right until she couldn't breathe any more and she was dying from asphyxiation. I watched my awareness disengage itself. I couldn't die with her. I couldn't love her through death, I could love her to death.(laughter) That's an interesting moment for me, to see where the automatic defense locks in and I get pushed back into my separateness, because that's the moment where I'm not with her.

Rebecca: How could you have gone further?

Ram Dass: If I were not caught, then whatever was catching her would have been totally in her. I wouldn't have been perpetuating it, so she could have let it go faster.

I meet somebody and they think they're real. My job is not to deny that reality, but to have a context in which that is not the only reality. So I'm always here in case they want to let go of that one. I don't demand that they let go of it, but if they would like to let go of it - I'm here. If you're a Christian you can speak about focusing on the soul as well as the manifestation. You're constantly saying, are you in there? What's it like being you this time?

Rebecca: How do you help a person in their dying process?

Ram Dass: By working on yourself to keep unencumbered by clingings of mind, so you stay in compassion. That's independent of whether you give them water and plump their pillows and hold them and all that stuff. The question is, where do you do it from? That's more interesting.

We're not dealing with the issue of whether you do it, if somebody is thirsty, you give them water, naturally. The issue is how you do it. In order to not create suffering, you can only work on yourself. That's the gift you give. The process of working with somebody as they're dying is an exercise on yourself to keep you in love and watching when you fall out of love from moment to moment.

Rebecca: It must be a challenge to maintain that kind of openness when the person dying is expressing bitterness or anger.

Ram Dass: There can be anything. There can be sweet happiness that's phony, there can be pain and struggle - but all you can do is create the space where they can do what they need to do. They might come on with their whole trip of this is terrible, but there's nothing they get out of you. Sometimes they come on strong, and then they see that nothing has happened in you.

I remember a woman coming to see me and telling me this terribly sad story about her being a seamstress and having a child and how her child is now forging checks. And I listened very carefully and at the end I said, "I hear you." That didn't satisfy her and she went and told the whole story again. She was used to using that story like the ancient mariner. And the second time I said it, this smile came upon her face and she said, "you know, I was a bit of a rascal at that age too." She had come up for air.

Rebecca: So you offer someone another option to the drama.

Ram Dass: Yes. It's available, but you don't try to get them into the other option. The minute you try to change somebody, you play into the unconscious paranoia that is in everybody, and when they feel manipulated they push against it and it isolates them even more.

Rebecca: What is your position on euthanasia?

Ram Dass: A human birth is an incredible vehicle for working on yourself and you should milk it for as much as you can get out of it. But if you've had enough and you can't cut it, you should certainly have the "choice" to end it, even though it's not really your choice - your karma just ran out for that round.

I have nothing against that. You just go on from that point instead of from another point. I can't see that there's any rush - it's a circle. Where's everybody going anyway?! (laughter)

Rebecca: So you don't see some heavy karmic consequences from bailing?

Ram Dass: No. If somebody asks me, "should I?" I say, "well, I wouldn't." But I don't know, I might if I got into a certain situation.

David: What do you believe happens to consciousness after the death of the body?

Ram Dass: I think it's a function of the level of evolution of the individual psychic DNA code, or whatever. I think that if you have finished your work and you're just awareness that happens to be in a body, when the body ends it's like selling your Ford - it's no big deal.

Then the question is, what of you is left after that? If you're fully enlightened, nothing of you is left because nothing was there before. If there's something before, there will probably be something after, and it will project onward. I can imagine beings that are so dense and caught in life that when they die, there is no place in awareness that they can conceive of the fact that they're dead. The word conceive in this context is strange because they have no brain, so it really raises questions about who is thinking this. (laughter) But I think that identifying the brain with thought is a mistake, I think that the brain is a way of manifesting the thought but I don't think that it is actually an isomorphic thing.

So, I suspect that some beings go unconscious, they go into what Christians call purgatory. They go to sleep during that process before they project into the next form. Others I think go through and are aware they are going through it, but are still caught. All the bardos in the Tibetan Book of the Dead are about how to avoid getting caught.

Those beings are awake enough for them to be collaborators in the appreciation of the gestalt in which their incarnations are flowing. They sort of see where they're coming from and where they're going. They are all part of the design of things. So, when you say, did you choose to incarnate? At the level at which you are free, you did choose. At the level at which you are not - you didn't.

And then there are beings who are so free that when they go through they may still have separateness. They may have taken the Bodhisatva vow which says, `I agree to not give up separateness until everybody is free,' and they're left with that thought. They don't have anything else. Then the next incarnation will be out of the intention to save all beings and not out of personal karma. That one bit of personal karma is what keeps it moving.

To me, since nothing happened anyway, it's all an illusion - reincarnation and everything - but within the relative reality in which that's real, I think it's quite real.

Rebecca: It's interesting how in Buddhism you learn about the general definition of reincarnation and then as you go up the lineage, this definition becomes increasingly relative.

Ram Dass: Right. You're the Buddha already, you're only in drag. And then you wake up and realize you've been had by your own mind.

Rebecca: One of the things that comes up time and time again in your writings is that when a person is involved in service, they do a lot better when they can operate from a position of full acceptance of the other's condition, whether that person is a drug addict, a mass murderer or a terminally ill patient or whatever, and not operate from the desire to change the behavior or conditions. Can you elaborate on this as many people would say that the purpose of service is to change certain behaviors and conditions that are perceived as harming another?

Ram Dass: The purpose of service is to relieve suffering. Now the question is, what is the nature of suffering? Maybe if the person is thirsty the purpose of service is to give them a glass of water. God comes to the hungry in the form of food.

Rebecca: What if they're dying of thirst and they say they don't want a glass of water? Do you think that a person is ever justified in assuming control of another’s welfare?

Ram Dass: I think that if you're dealing with a very young child where you are responsible for their biological survival, then you have some grounds for having a preference that is different from theirs. But if you're deciding what is best for somebody else and you're dealing with an adult consciousness - therein lies the tyrannical state.

David: But you may still be relieving suffering though, even if your efforts aren't being appreciated.

Rebecca: I had a lot of friends who were sent to mental hospitals instead of universities. Most people would think that's too bad but I think they came out with more cylinders than many who went to university.

I don't know how it's going to come out. I see people suffering in their dying so intensely. They've had big egos all their life and that suffering and pain finally wore them down until they just gave up. And at the moment they give up, it's like a window opened and there they are in their full spiritual splendor.

Now do I say that the suffering stunk? It was terrible and I would have taken it away from them in a minute if I could. My human heart doesn't want them to suffer, but when I look at it I say, "boy, the game is more interesting than I thought it was." That's why I include suffering as part of the mystery.

You and I can only meet through roles. So, let's say you come to me and I'm your therapist. You came to me to change you, and my job is to relieve the suffering that brought you there. Part of my job is for me to help you see the forms of your pathology, but the deeper suffering that I understand is your separateness, your isolation. Therefore, what I can offer you is my being and my presence. That's the real gift. You and I may come together through the form of therapist and client, but we may meet as just two beings who are dancing into love through the form of those roles.

Somebody might ask me if they should go to therapy, and I would say, "yes, but try to find a therapist who doesn't think they're a therapist." If they think they're a therapist, they have an agenda and they are caught in their mind which is treating you as an object to be manipulated for your own good.

Rebecca: You talk about how suffering can awaken us more than pleasure can, but I'm wondering about ecstasy. The ecstatic experience of God seems to be able to link up with the compassionate acknowledgment of suffering in the same way that suffering is able to lead us back to the ecstatic experience. Is ecstasy as valid a path to God as suffering is, in your view?

Ram Dass: I'd much rather use the ecstatic path. I'm no fool! (laughter) I guess the thing is that ecstasy is easy for the ego to socialize in and protect itself. Suffering has an effect kind of like dripping water on stone. It eats your ego away.

Suffering confronts you with where you are holding. It shows you your stash; the attachments which you have been hiding from yourself. If you have no attachment then you wouldn't be suffering. When you are suffering, you say, why am I suffering? I'm suffering because I'm holding onto a model of how it should be other than the way it is.

Pain is a strong stimulus and what model you have of what pain is has a lot to do with how you cope with it, and whether or not you can open to it being a part of you rather than trying to isolate it. One of the things with pain is that you tend to try to make it separate from yourself.

The art is to be mindful of it and yet fully with it. It's the pushing against something that gets you into trouble: pushing against aging, pushing against the weather. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't be an activist and push against things. It doesn't mean that you don't have opinions, it means that you're not attached to your opinions. As Don Juan said, you huff and puff and make believe it's real, even though you know it isn't. (laughter)

Rebecca: How then do you think we can avoid the kind of polarization that we see in the abortion issue for example, where both sides seem beyond the point of being able to communicate with one another.

Ram Dass: If I were in a position to have some say, I would bring some of the leaders from each group together for a retreat where I would invite them just to listen to each other. You not only have to hear the other person, but they have to feel that they have been heard. If I feel you've heard me, then you and I can start a dialogue, but if I don't feel that you've heard me, then I'm in opposition to you.

The question is, how do we create a meta-identity? We all think life is beautiful, we all think that life is sacred, but we also think that freedom from suffering is sacred. It's not sacred versus profane. It's not people of ill-will on either side. Everyone is trying to be as true to the light as they can.

Engaging everybody in the meta-game is a tricky one. You want to help them break their identification with their position. They're not giving up their position, but their primary identification can shift from being an abortionist or an anti-abortionist, to being a human being who has an opinion about abortion. That's a different place. Then everyone can sit around and say, what do we do about this? If everybody lays their cards on the table, the game is possible.

Rebecca: So you're talking about developing a respect towards the other, even if that other doesn't agree with you.

Ram Dass: Yeah. It's like in politics. Everybody is using all of the external symbols of the fact that they're doing that, respecting the other and trying to understand the other, but they're not doing it. All alignment has been pre-empted in the service of third chakra ego power. It's inevitable, I guess.

Rebecca: You talk about learning to use all life experiences, whether good or bad as grist for the mill and potential for spiritual growth. And I think about the people in Rwanda and what they're going through; the disease and the famine and the apparent meaninglessness of it all, and I wonder what kind of spiritual growth they are achieving or have even the possibility of achieving from that.

Ram Dass: (long pause) That's the mystery. That's the mystery of suffering. If you could stand back enough to see the whole trip it might look quite different. Say you have freeze-frame photography and my arm is moving from pointing downwards to straight up in the air. If the middle frames are missing, then you see one situation and then another, with no apparant connection between them. You're seeing the horror which is Rwanda, but you're missing out on witnessing the beauty.

I would sit in front of Maharaji and I felt like he had a deck of cards of all my reincarnations. I could sense that he saw my incarnations in a context that I couldn't see. It all seemed terribly real to me. If you look back at the events of your life, you'll see that when you were in them, you didn't see the context. I look back at my miserable times and realize how profoundly that helped me in where I am now.

Rebecca: So, if you see suffering in the context of a continuum then it becomes easier to understand.

Ram Dass: It all has to do with your time-frame. For the people in Rwanda, it's hell. None of this doesn't mean that you don't do what you can to relieve the suffering. You do what your heart calls you to do. Saying that it's all karma, isn't a justification for non-action. That is a confusion of levels of consciousness. On the level of the human heart, you do what you can to relieve another's suffering. On another level, it's all karma.

Rebecca: How do you move within your meditation space so that you stop getting trapped in the, now I'm meditating, now I'm not syndrome, so the high can keep leaking into your life?

Ram Dass: You give up not meditating. It's called meditation action. There's no way out of it. Meditation means to be constanty extricating yourself from the clinging of mind.

Rebecca: So, it becomes part of the fabric of your life, rather than another thing on your list to do like the laundry or something?

Ram Dass: That's right. People ask me, how much meditation practice do you do? Sometimes I say none, and they give me a worried look,(laughter) but the other answer is, all the time! I don't do anything else but meditate.

David: What are some of the current projects that you are working on?

Ram Dass: There are several on the burner. I've just accepted a contract on a book on aging which will allow me to take about two years off to write. I'm hoping to understand the dysfunctional mythology around aging; aesthetically, cross-culturally and spiritually.

I'm also on the board of a group called Social Venturing Network - exploring the relationship between spirit and business. Out of that core group, we've started three organizations in the past year. We've started Businesses for Social Responsibility, we started Students for Responsible Business and we've started a European SVN. We have two conferences a year and it has about 500 people involved, including Ben and Jerry's and The Body Shop. Working with dying people is dealing with my issues about death and working with business people is dealing with my issues about money and power.

I've been doing major fundraising work for SEVA for fifteen years which has been involved in relieving blindness in India and Nepal. I have one project in South India. The hospital have been given one and a quarter millions dollars by Lions International to set up an international community opthamology institute. It's to train people to carry opthamology programs into Indonesia and Africa. But I'm phasing down a lot of the service stuff because I really don't think I can carry it all at once.

I have to listen - we all have to - to hear how we honor all of the different levels of the games we are in. I'm a member of a family, I'm a member of a nation-state, I'm a member of the community, I have a sexual identity, I have an age identity, a religious identity. It's important to feel how your incarnation takes form through these identities, and to ask yourself, what does it mean to live with integrity within each of those systems?

That's something that I have had to learn because I used to be so busy seeing the spiritual journey as something that you did by yourself.

Rebecca: You've said that everyone should try and work from the edges of their experience. What did you mean by that?

Ram Dass: As chaos increases - and there's a lot of inertia in the system that seems to suggest that is the direction we're going in - it behooves us to prepare ourselves to ride the changes. If, in the face of uncertainty, people are busy holding onto something, the fear increases, then the contraction increases, and prejudice increases. The question is, what are you adding to the system to shift the balance? What you're adding is yourself, and what yourself has to be is somebody who can handle uncertainty and chaos without contracting.

I've gotten over the feeling of being somebody special. You've come with a camera and tape-recorders, but that's your trip, it's not mine. I really experience the web of inter-connectedness of all beings. It's like C.S Lewis' line, you don't see the center because it's all center.

Rebecca: There are so many people who spend all their time dreaming about being somebody special.

Ram Dass: And the horror is to see people who thought that that would be something and then got it. Then you see them trying to hold onto it, even though they know it's empty. I've been in a hall with thousands of people applauding and bringing flowers and loving me, and then gone to the hotel alone, feeling the absolute wretchedness of it all.

David: Could you sum up the basic message of your life?

Ram Dass: (long pause) I would say that the thrust of my life has been initially about getting free, and then realizing that my freedom is not independent of everybody else. Then I am arriving at that circle where one works on oneself as a gift to other people so that one doesn't create more suffering. I help people as a work on myself and I work on myself to help people.

I've been perfecting that circle for thirty years. It's karma yoga. It's the Bodhisattva vow. My life is about applied dharma. On a socio-political level - I'm a survivor. Once that faith and that connection and that emptiness is strong enough, then I experience looking around for the fields I can play in.

I work with AIDS, with business, with government, with teenagers, with people dying of cancer, with blindness. It doesn't matter, because your agenda is always the same. Do what you can on this plane to relieve suffering by constantly working on yourself to be an instrument for the cessation of suffering. To me, that's what the emerging game is all about.

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